OR­DER OUT OF CHAOS Democrats try to level de­bate play­ing field for two dozen can­di­dates

The Washington Times Weekly - - Politics - BY SETH MCLAUGH­LIN

Herd­ing cats may turn out to be child’s play com­pared with the task of cor­ralling what could be some two dozen Demo­cratic can­di­dates vy­ing for a place on the de­bate stage as the party tries to pick its op­po­nent to Pres­i­dent Trump in 2020.

Demo­cratic Na­tional Com­mit­tee Chair­man Tom Perez is ex­pected to re­veal his plans be­fore Christ­mas for how many de­bates the DNC will sanc­tion and how it will de­cide who makes the cut. The de­ci­sions are likely to be tricky. A de­bate with more than a dozen can­di­dates could seem ridicu­lous, but the spec­ta­cle of shunt­ing high-pro­file mi­nor­ity can­di­dates to a “kids’ ta­ble” af­ter­thought de­bate be­cause they aren’t polling high enough — as the Re­pub­li­can Party did in 2016 — could dent the DNC’s out­reach ef­forts.

Jane Kleeb, a DNC mem­ber from Ne­braska, said she hopes the party holds a lot­tery in the early de­bates to de­ter­mine who makes which group­ing.

“It is a luck of a draw,” she said, adding that could rub some well-known con­tenders the wrong way but would help en­sure the process is fair and give lit­tle-known can­di­dates a chance to break out. “We never know who the dark horse is go­ing to be.”

In the be­gin­ning, I do think you have to have a level play­ing field or make it as level as you can make it, but af­ter three de­bates, you re­ally do know who the top con­tenders are,” she said.

She also urged the party to con­sider hold­ing a de­bate in ru­ral Amer­ica.

For­mer Mary­land Gov. Mar­tin O’Mal­ley, who ran for the pres­i­den­tial nom­i­na­tion in 2016 and is con­sid­er­ing an­other bid, said the DNC must learn from the mis­takes of the last time.

Oth­er­wise, he said, the 2020 de­bates will be a “bizarre cross be­tween the Jerry Springer Show and the old celebrity game show ‘Hol­ly­wood Squares.’”

Mr. O’Mal­ley said both par­ties in 2016 caved to an “in­fo­tain­ment” model of de­bates, re­ward­ing some can­di­dates with more at­ten­tion be­cause they made for good TV rather than be­cause they con­trib­uted to sub­stan­tive dis­cus­sions.

“It is not only about the sched­ule; it is also about the for­mat,” he said. “The party needs to have some sem­blance of equal time when it comes to these de­bates and if we have so many can­di­dates that we have to have two dif­fer­ent de­bates, then so be it.”

Mr. O’Mal­ley sug­gested that the can­di­dates be bro­ken up into three tiers: “bil­lion­aires, celebri­ties and pub­lic ser­vants.”

Mr. Perez has kept close wraps on the de­bate de­tails that he is hash­ing out with a hand­ful of party op­er­a­tives, in­clud­ing Mary Beth Cahill, who man­aged John F. Kerry’s pres­i­den­tial cam­paign in 2004.

He has in­di­cated there would be more de­bates than 2016, when the Demo­cratic con­tenders faced off nine times. He also said he is in­clined to avoid the main card-un­der­card for­mat that Re­pub­li­cans re­lied on to jug­gle 17 can­di­dates.

“When I ran for DNC chair, I said one of the things we are go­ing to do to re­build trust is to make sure that we set out a pri­mary de­bate cal­en­dar long in ad­vance of who we know will be in the race,” Mr. Perez said at a re­cent break­fast spon­sored by The Chris­tian Sci­ence Mon­i­tor. “Our job is to make sure that ev­ery­body gets a fair shake, and the process is fair — fair in fact and fair in per­cep­tion.”

Democrats ap­pear to have a nearly lim­it­less — and high­pow­ered — field shap­ing up, with a for­mer vice pres­i­dent, a for­mer first lady and sec­re­tary of state, a for­mer at­tor­ney gen­eral, a for­mer na­tional se­cu­rity ad­viser, at least eight sen­a­tors, a hand­ful of mem­bers of the House, sit­ting and ex-gover­nors and the odd bil­lion­aire or two eye­ing runs.

“I want to make sure that ev­ery­body feels their can­di­date got a fair shake be­cause what we have to en­sure com­ing out of the con­ven­tion is that we have a wind at our back, we have unity and we have ex­cite­ment,” Mr. Perez told re­porters.

That didn’t hap­pen in the 2016 race, when the party was run by Rep, Deb­bie Wasser­man Schultz of Florida.

Mr. O’Mal­ley and oth­ers com­plained that the vast ma­jor­ity of de­bate ques­tions were di­rected at Hil­lary Clin­ton and Sen. Bernard San­ders, and the de­bates were pen­ciled in at odd times — fall­ing on week­ends, out­side of prime time and at the same time as ma­jor sport­ing events.

“The de­bates last time where a bit of a fraud,” Mr. O’Mal­ley said. “It was al­most as if the Demo­cratic Party didn’t want peo­ple to see our de­bates.”

Dave O’Brien, a DNC mem­ber from Mas­sachusetts, said the party should strive for a process that is fair but avoids a po­lit­i­cal cir­cus re­ward­ing can­di­dates with the big­gest mouths say­ing the most con­tro­ver­sial things to grab the lime­light.

“The fear I have is the de­bates are go­ing to be who­ever puts out the red meat is go­ing to be the trac­tion for that week, but I am afraid that is not how some­one is go­ing to win long term,” he said.

When it comes to de­bates, he said, “you can­not please ev­ery­body.”

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